About Tangerine Falls (West Fork Cold Springs Falls)
Locally known as Tangerine Falls (but also known as West Fork Cold Springs Falls), this “Santa Barbara locals only” waterfall required quite a bit of an adventure for us to reach. The hike was not really that well signposted (for the waterfall at least) and we had to be willing to do some pretty rough scrambling, especially towards the end of the hike where the scrambling was nearly vertical. With that all said, the falls was reported to have a main drop of somewhere around 100ft with plenty of disjoint smaller cascades to bring its cumulative drop to a figure that might be more like 150ft or more. It seemed to have a rather short-lived flow depending on how much rain had preceded a visit. In our case, our first visit to the falls was timed for February while my second visit occured about a 1.5 months after the last of the saturation rains that had put a dent in the multi-year drought that had hit much of Southern California. In both instances, I’d say the flow was such that another month or two without rain and the falls would slow to a trickle or go dry altogether.
Speaking of the hike, given how non-trivial the it was towards the end (which we’ll get to shortly), you might want to rethink doing this hike/scramble if it had been raining or threatening to rain because there were plenty of difficult spots requiring clinging to and climbing onto rocks that can easily be slippery when wet. Some of the gullies we had to traverse or ascend could easily be muddy or flooded. And let’s not forget trying to minimize skin contact with the ubiquitous poison oak, which could be an issue near the creeks where they tended to be more abundant.
From the East Mountain Road at the trailhead (see directions below), we had to make sure that we took the correct trail as there were two trailheads as well as an additional one on the other side of the concrete ford. We made sure to take the trail for West Fork Cold Springs, which was the one to the left of the East Fork Cold Springs Trail (that one ascended steeply and veered to the right away from Cold Springs Creek). The correct trail had a couple of trash cans near its trailhead, which helped us discern it from the rest. Within a few minutes into the hike, there were some false trails leading to crossings of Cold Springs Creek, but the correct trail junction and creek crossing for the West Fork Cold Springs Trail was another quarter-mile further on. At this junction, there were obvious signposts for West Fork Cold Springs Trail as well as a bench or two.
Beyond the creek crossing, the trail then resumed on the West Fork Cold Springs Trail going uphill. The trail pretty much followed water pipes. We weren’t sure what the pipes were for, but if we had to guess it was probably for water diversion. Anyways, these water pipes wound up being kind of trail markers for us, especially in places where there were trail junctions and we weren’t quite sure which way to go. So we suspected that it was tapping off the same stream that was responsible for Tangerine Falls. Speaking of which, during this uphill stretch of trail following water pipes, we managed to spot Tangerine Falls high up on the mountains ahead of us. So that kind of gave us some sense that we were at least going the right way and that it was within reach.
Somewhere near the middle of the hike, we encountered an unsigned fork with the path on the right descending to a dry creek bed. We took that right fork and then we had to go either go through or around an eroded embankment. Beyond this obstacle (which might not be there by the time you do this hike), we regained the trail while it continued to follow more water pipes. At roughly a half-mile beyond creek crossing, we then encountered a trail junction with a wooden pole in between the two forking trails. I kept right to descend right down to a dry creek, where the trail then continued to follow the West Fork Cold Springs Creek.
There continued to be water pipes on the trail, and I used it to lead me further upstream alongside West Fork Cold Springs Creek. There was one junction where the trail deviated from the water pipes and climbed sharply up a series of switchbacks. I learned the hard way that to stay on the correct trail, I had to stay with the water pipes alongside the creek (the other trail climbed steeply well above the West Fork Cold Springs Creek and veering towards a different canyon). It wouldn’t take long before the trail then crossed West Fork Cold Springs Creek right before an attractive cascade. Continuing to follow the water pipes, I then encountered a steep, root-exposed climb that was non-technical, but it required the use of my hands. Indeed, I needed to be careful and choose my route wisely given its steepness.
After the last (third I believe) stream crossing, the water pipes started to disappear and eventually the trail seemed to have disappeared on us as we were faced with a rock ledge. With Tangerine Falls visible through the foliage above us, we knew that the only way to finish the hike was to press forward and scramble onto the rock ledge. After rounding a bend, the ledge dropped off towards the creek, where I then tip-toed alongside the creek before reaching a gully and rock wall that I had to climb to get past. Indeed, this scramble marked the beginning of the real serious part of our “adventure”, and as we continued onwards, we had to climb higher and steeper as the trail pretty much degenerated into a straight up rock scramble. Along the way, there were more intermediate tiers of Tangerine Falls, but we probably spent more time concentrating on the climb before us given the exposure to dropoff hazards that were present.
When we climbed high enough on the scramble, it turned out that there were a couple of spots to view Tangerine Falls. The first spot we stopped at was below the main waterfall itself near some lower cascades. We had to deviate from the “trail” and descend a steep eroded gully to get down to the creek level just in front of an intermediate cascade immediately below the main Tangerine Falls. From down here, we were able to look up just past a tree (threatening to obstruct the view) at the falls against the deep blue morning sky while hangliders were hovering right above the falls! On my second visit here, I showed up a few hours earlier than our first visit, and it turned out that morning light wasn’t the best for Tangerine Falls as I pretty much had to look against the sun to look at the main drop of the falls. Given these observations, I’d say late morning through to mid-afternoon would be the best times to visit the falls seeing how the sun would be behind me instead of in front of me.
The second spot we stopped at was further up the “trail” as it deviated and followed a precarious ledge right at the bottom of the main waterfall. At first, we actually weren’t aware of this other spot until we saw a group of locals continue climbing further up the steep trail. So by the time we made it to the trail’s end, it got pretty crowded at the narrow ledge fronting the main waterfall (as there was very limited space here). On the second visit here, I was alone at this spot, but I was also pretty much looking right against the morning sun. Nonetheless, from this vantage point, we could see the falls’ profile from very close up while also getting a commanding ocean view looking downstream.
I’d have to say this was one of the more memorable hikes that Julie and I have done together, and it was probably because of this view along with the waterfall itself as well as the difficult scrambling towards the end. Apparently, we weren’t alone in our thinking because when we returned to the trailhead, we must’ve counted at least a half-dozen hiking groups headed the other way so I have to believe this is a pretty popular spot despite how rough the trail can get. The same could be said of my second visit to the falls when I must have passed by at least a dozen more hiking parties going towards the falls as I was leaving.
Ann Marie Brown said this hike was 2 miles round trip, but Julie and I swore it seemed quite a bit longer than that (more like 3 miles or so). After all, we spent about 2.5 hours doing this excursion (though this included the picture-taking). I took a similar amount of time on my second visit when I solo’ed this hike. Thus, in spite of the reported trail length, given all the obstacles encountered, such statistics can be deceiving. So given all these factors, I decided to bumped up the difficulty rating of this waterfalling excursion given the hazards present and the exertion required. I certainly would not recommend bringing children on the hike unless they’re pretty experienced hikers or have no fear of heights.
There are several ways to arrive at the Tangerine Falls Trailhead, but we’ll describe what we think would be the most straightforward route. So assuming we were driving east of downtown Santa Barbara along the US101 Freeway, we’d exit at Olive Mill Road (exit 94A), then turn left at the second stop sign, where we’d then drive north on Olive Mill Rd for a little over a half-mile before it continued going north on Hot Springs Rd. After another 1.3 miles on Hot Springs Rd, we’d then turn left onto East Mountain Drive and follow this road for a little over a mile to the trailheads for the various forks of Cold Springs Creek. Overall, this drive would take about 15 minutes.
One thing I do need to mention is that on our first visit here, we saw broken glass on the ground near where we pulled in to park. So be careful not to leave valuables in the car as this area has apparently had a history of break-ins.
Finally for some geographical context, Santa Barbara was 100 miles (over 2 hours drive with moderate traffic) from downtown Los Angeles. Without traffic, this drive could easily be accomplished in about 90 minutes.
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